Brittney Griner was dealt another blow in her hopes to return home to the U.S. Tuesday. The WNBA star’s sentence on drug charges was upheld in a Russian court, and she is set to serve nine years in Russian prison.
Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star, was arrested in February for allegedly possessing cannabis oil in her luggage after arriving in Moscow from New York City. News of her detainment didn’t break until more than two weeks later. On March 7, the Phoenix Mercury, WNBA, and USA Basketball, all released statements confirming the news of Griner’s detainment in Russia.
March 7 was also the day that Griner’s wife, Cherelle, spoke out. On Instagram she said, "We love you babe! People say 'stay busy.' Yet, there's not a task in this world that could keep any of us from wondering if you are safe. My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats every day that goes by without hearing from you. I miss your voice. I miss your presence. You're our person! There are no words to express this pain. I'm hurting, we're hurting. We await the day to love on you as a family.”
What is the latest in Brittney Griner's situation in Russia?
As the Biden administration, federal lawmakers and officials, and Griner’s friends and family started working towards the 32-year-old’s release, her Russian court proceedings began. Her detention was extended three separate times, in March, May, and June, until her trial was held in July. She eventually would plead guilty and was sentenced to nine years.
Back in the U.S., the White House has spoken out against the Russian court proceedings, calling her latest hearing Tuesday a “sham.” President Biden himself met with the families Griner and another American in Russian prison, Paul Whelan, back in September. It came after CNN reported the administration made a “substantial” deal to Russia for Griner and Whelan’s release. The ball has been in Russia’s court ever since.
Is Russia going to release Brittney Griner?
Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have been focused on other political issues while Griner has been locked up. Just a week after her arrest, Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. and many other nations condemned the invasion, and it led to severe sanctions being placed on Russia. But none of that has deterred Putin.
The invasion is now entering its ninth month, and it does not appear to have an end in sight. On Wednesday, Putin looked on during a set of test launches of Russian nuclear forces. The country is also accusing Ukraine of preparing to use a nuclear bomb. Ukrainian leaders are rebuffing the claim, but Moscow using the supposed threat as a reason to continue raising the stakes in the brutal war.
The war Russia has started has led the U.S. to place severe sanctions on the country. Multiple corporations have left Russia following the invasion many countries have said was “unjustified.”
One of Russia’s few chips it currently has left to play with U.S. diplomats is continuing to have the former All-American basketball player from Baylor in Russian custody.
Given Putin’s current intentions, releasing Griner back to the United States isn’t going to come easily. With the offer for a prisoner exchange already in his hands, it isn’t clear when, or if the Russian president will accept. Now that her sentence has been upheld in court, the only way Griner will be coming back to the United States is if Putin gets involved.
What does this mean for Brittney Griner's basketball career?
While it certainly isn't the focus of this issue, Griner's future in the WNBA is uncertain. At the moment, if Griner is forced to serve the entirety of her sentence, she will be in her early 40s and unlikely to touch a basketball in that nine-year span.
That is an especially difficult thing to imagine for all of us, but especially those who enjoyed watching Griner dominate WNBA opponents in the last few seasons.
Griner’s presence on the basketball court has been dearly missed by her teammates. The Phoenix Mercury’s center averaged 20 points a game four of the last five seasons before her detainment in Russia, with the only season not reaching that level being the COVID-impacted 2020 season. She has gone back-and-forth with star guard Diana Taurasi for leading the Mercury in scoring during that time frame.
The Mercury had lost in the WNBA Finals to the Chicago Sky in 2021 before Griner was arrested in Russia. In 2022, they finished 15-21 and in fourth place in the six-team Western Conference. Not all of the blame can be placed on Griner’s absence, but it’s safe to say it had an impact on and off the floor.
Griner has already been in Russian prison for months. With the Russian war in Ukraine, it isn’t clear if or when she may be coming back to the United States. The situation has already affected the game of her Phoenix Mercury, and only time will tell if the situation will also impact the U.S. National Team in 2024.
If she was released today, who knows how the detainment will have impacted Griner’s life, let alone her basketball ability. But the longer she is locked up overseas, the more unlikely it is that Griner will be able to make a meaningful return on the court in the WNBA.
Off the court, Griner's unfortuanate circumstances and the impact she made in her decade of WNBA play will be an inspiration for the next generation of fans and athletes.